Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson


“One night, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.”

Only there isn’t any moonlight, road or scenery. Harold, being a sensible child, uses his purple crayon to create the road, the moon, the horizon…and when that becomes dull, a very small forest consisting of one apple tree. He adds a ferocious monster under the tree to guard the apples, which scares him so his hand trembles…creating an ocean behind him as he backs up, crayon-holding hand shaking behind him. Undaunted by falling into the ocean he’s just created and then tripped into, Harold bobs to the surface and draws a boat, sailing safely across to the other shore. Now hungry, he draws a feast of purple pies and eats his fill; when done, he invites a similarly hued hungry moose and friendly porcupine to consume what remains. As they tuck in, he sets off in search of his home, drawing the scenery as he goes. Frightened by the increasing complexity of his creation but without the cognitive ability to analyze what he’s done that maturity brings, he draws a policeman who directs him home. Harold, grown weary of adventures, finally realizes that, even more concretely than Dorothy with her slippers, he’s had the power to take himself home all along: he draws the moon, then his own window around it, then his very own bed standing in the moonlight…and lies down in it to return to sleep, just as safely and softly as one’s own bed ought to be.

The books involving Harold and his crayon aren’t going to appeal to everyone, in or out of the intended age range, and I know there are more recent books that educators and librarians use in their lessons and story hours. Wistfully, however, I would hope that there’s still a place in libraries for Harold and his crayon; it strikes me as the sort of book that lends itself well to reading aloud as, like all good picture books, the pictures match the text well enough that non-reading children can easily follow along and even “tell” the story themselves. If the parents wish a ‘teaching moment’ with their children, there are a number of imagination exercises they might use to engage the kids. (I vaguely remember my parents asking things along the lines of “And what would you draw? What color crayon would you use? What animals would you share your pie with?”)

What to read next? There are a number of other ‘Harold’ stories, but Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a logical choice if the kids are ready for more detailed and somewhat scarier illustrations, as it’s got something of the same theme of traveling to strange lands and coming safely home at the end. For kids who’ve outgrown proper picture books but may not be quite ready for chapter books, Johnson wrote a series of cartoon books about a boy somewhat older than Harold, Barnaby, who wishes for a fairy godfather and gets a cigar-smoking, overcoat-wearing fairy fresh off the boat from Ireland. As with Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, only Barnaby can see Mr. O’Malley.

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